|There's no question that we've all felt the effects of heightened security
measures since September 11. Manyhave declared that life in the U.S. will
never be the same following the terrorist acts and the ensuing sense of
vulnerability. Our airports, borders, and public spaces have all been tightened
down. But what are the implications of removing "sensitive information"
from the public domain on the basis that it could be used for terrorism?
To gauge our readers' opinions on the matter of diminished access to
Web-based information, we posted a snap poll on the Information Today,
Inc. Web site that read as follows:
Many government agencies and some companies are removing information
from their Web sites in response to concerns about security. Is this restricted
access to information justified under our current circumstances? Yes. No.
Because of the large number of responses and comments, the poll was
left up longer than usual. It ran from December 2, 2001 until March 5,
2002. It garnered 577 votes, of which 259 (45 percent) said yes, restricted
access is justified, and 318 (55 percent) said no, it's not. While the
votes were split by a fairly small margin, the respondents' comments leaned
much more in support of the "no" vote, with 26 (70 percent of those commenting)
taking the time to express their views, some of them quite passionately.
Just 11 people wrote in support of the "yes" vote.
A few of the "yes" comments were very definite about the national security
issues that are involved with restricted access and the "extraordinary"
circumstances we are now experiencing. One respondent said, "We have enjoyed
unlimited freedom for many years but I'm afraid that some of our rights
and privileges may have to be sacrificed in the name of security." Another
noted that the restrictions are justified because providing easily accessible
information amounts to "doing the homework for the bad guys." Others said
it's better to be safe than sorry.
One very thoughtful response from a librarian indicated "great concerns
about the abuse of this very important power" and said that his/her "yes"
vote was "highly limited." The comments continued, "I don't believe it's
in our national interests to Web-publish detailed instructions for avoiding
airport security [as reported by the GAO], but I am concerned that 'national
security' will become an umbrella to hide everything from Enron connections
to poor auditing to general sloppiness and incompetence."
Several people called the removal of information an overreaction or
a "knee-jerk reaction" and asked for restraint and common sense to prevail.
A number pointed out the difficulties in determining the restrictions.
One questioned: "Where does one draw the line when removing information?
Who decides what can remain and what should be removed for 'our safety?'
What do they know about the many uses of this information?" Several of
the respondents pointed out that access to information is the basis for
the advancement of knowledge and technological improvements. Others called
the removal of information "feel-good rubbish" and part of a national "hysteria."
On December 5 (shortly after the poll was posted), a district court
judge ordered the Department of the Interior to disconnect its computers
from the Internet because of security concerns over the accounting system
that managed Indian land royalties. The effects were wide-ranging. All
of the National Park Service sites went down, as did the U.S. Geological
Survey, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
and others. Four months later, most but not all of the department's access
has been restored. According to a report in Wired, Interior Secretary
Gale Norton still can't send e-mail. One of our poll respondents commented
on his inability to reach the National Park Service's Pearl Harbor Web
site and called it "shameful conduct" on the part of the court and the
Looking at the Big Picture
The removal of government information has certainly not been limited
to the Department of the Interior or just to the federal government. OMB
Watch, a group that promotes "government accountability," has been keeping
a list of information that's been removed from federal and state government
Web sites (http://www.ombwatch.org/article/articleview/213/1/1).
It's definitely worth a look. The list ranges widely and includes transportation
data, maps, pipeline data, environmental data such as air and water quality,
documents in the National Archives, and risk-management and emergency-response
In March, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it
would no longer allow direct access to the Envirofacts databases. It stated
that "As part of our continuing efforts to respond to Homeland Security
issues ... starting April 1, 2002, Direct Connect access will no longer
be available to the general public. Direct Connect access to Envirofacts
will only be available to U.S. EPA employees, U.S. EPA Contractors, the
Military, Federal Government, and State Agency employees." Limited access
to Envirofacts databases continues to be available to the public via the
Envirofacts site (http://www.epa.gov/enviro).
Rather than subsiding, the issue of government-information removal from
the public Web has actually escalated in the last few months with the latest
executive directive. On March 19, White House chief of staff Andrew Card
released a memo to all heads of executive departments and agencies that
called for "an immediate reexamination" of current measures for identifying
and protecting information on weapons of mass destruction. But the memo
expands the information to include "other information that could be misused
to harm the security of our Nation and the safety of our people."
An accompanying memo from the Information Security Oversight Office
specified that information that could be used to help someone develop or
utilize weapons of mass destruction should be kept classified or reclassified.
It also called for departments to protect "Sensitive But Unclassified Information."
The memo stated, "The need to protect such sensitive information from inappropriate
disclosure should be carefully considered, on a case-by-case basis, together
with the benefits that result from the open and efficient exchange of scientific,
technical, and like information." This caused a number of media observers
and public-interest advocates to express concerns about this vague new
category and the possible effects on the public's right to know. Given
such a gray area between public and classified information, some worry
that this would also sweep away information that's important for public
Libraries are rightfully concerned. Patrice McDermott, assistant director
of ALA's Office of Government Relations, commented on the "sensitive but
classified" category. "Sensitive can mean anything. It has no legal definition."
She noted that this could encompass anything that an agency's officials
wanted to hide or that made someone nervous. She continued: "In the past
few years we've seen a wealth of government information posted. Now we
have a situation where, at least for the foreseeable future, we're certain
to see a chilling effect." She also said she was disappointed that there
hasn't been a general public discussion about balancing the risks of making
information available against not making it available—and there should
Depository libraries have been dealing with issues related to the destruction
and removal of federal depository library documents. On March 21, the Association
of Research Libraries (ARL) released a memo,prepared by Thomas Susman of
Ropes & Gray, that responds to questions raised by a number of ARL
directors concerning these issues. Here's the situation as described by
In October 2001, the U.S. Geological Survey requested that the Government
Printing Office instruct Federal Depository Libraries that received a CD-ROM
on characteristics of large surface-water supplies in the United States
to destroy their copies. Shortly thereafter, the Superintendent of Documents
ordered those libraries participating in the Federal Depository Library
Program to withdraw this item and immediately destroy it. Subsequently,
the Federal Bureau of Investigation visited several Federal Depository
Libraries to determine whether that order had been carried out. This occurred
without consultation with the GPO or the Geological Survey (U.S.G.S.).
The memo (available at http://www.arl.org/info/frn/gov/Susman.html)
reviews the legal responsibilities of both the federal
depository libraries and the Government Printing Office, while highlighting
a number of key policy considerations. Briefly, it clarifies that documents
distributed through the Federal Depository Library Program are not the
property of the receiving library (but remain the property of the U.S.
government), while documents purchased by depository libraries are not
depository materials and are thus not subject to government control. However,
the memo warns that libraries are likely to face acute and increasingly
more complex issues as the restrictions on government information escalate.
Walking the fine line between responding to concerns about our homeland
security and ensuring public access to information has never been tested
more than since September 11. Indeed, all previous concernsover "sensitive"
information pale in light of our current circumstances and the complexity
of easy Internet access to the data we now enjoy. Our continuing challenge
must be to seek that delicate balance.
Looking back in our history, the dilemma of security vs. access to information
has been a recurring theme, especially with regard to scientific data.
In 1994, the U.S. National Committee for CODATA (Committee on Data for
Science and Technology), which was organized under the National Research
Council's Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications,
established the Committee on Issues in the Transborder Flow of Scientific
Data. Its aim was "to examine the current state of global access to scientific
data, to identify strengths, problems, and challenges that exist today
or appear likely to arise in the next few years, and to recommend actions
to build on those strengths and ameliorate or avoid those problems." In
1997, the National Academy Press published a report issued by the committee
titled "Bits of Power: Issues in Global Access to Scientific Data" (http://bob.nap.edu/html/BitsOfPower).
The following paragraph from this report summarizes the key finding:
Based on its deliberations and understanding of the issues
involved, the committee believes that the following overarching principle
should guide all policy decisions concerning the management and international
exchange of scientific data in the natural sciences: The value of data
lies in their use. Full and open access to scientific data should be adopted
as the international norm for the exchange of scientific data derived from
publicly funded research. The public-good interests in the full and open
access to and use of scientific data need to be balanced against legitimate
concerns for the protection of national security, individual privacy, and
Five years later we're still grappling with the issue of balance. We can
only hope that the officials in our government's agencies and departments
use the utmost care and common sense in their decisions.
Paula J. Hane is editor of NewsBreaks, contributing editor of
Information Today, a former reference librarian, and a long-time
online searcher. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.